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Letter from London, 4-2: Triplets
Gender-hopping with Guillem & Co.; "Destino"'s Children

By Josephine Leask
Copyright 2009 Josephine Leask

LONDON -- Audiences here flocked to Sadler's Wells February 26 to see "Eonnagata," conceived, created, and performed by a popular line-up of theater and dance professionals: Sylvie Guillem, Russell Maliphant and Robert Lepage. If these three mega-stars weren't enough to entice people to the theater, the costumes, designed by the inventive Alexander McQueen, added further pulling power. The subject matter of this collaboration was promising too: the sexually ambiguous existence of the 18th-century French noble Charles de Beaumont, Chevalier d'Eon, who as a spy and soldier spent much of a career dressed as a woman. As recounted in the program notes, this enigmatic character, whose actual sex remains a mystery to this day, had fascinated experimental theater director Lepage for many years, as had the world of the "onnagata," male Kabuki actors who train exclusively to perform female roles.

The main line of enquiry in "Eonnagata," through the exploration of the Chevalier d'Eon's confused, often unhappy life, questioned gender itself. What if this character was half-man and half-woman? Ambiguity is explored through all the components of this melange of dance and theater, in what is more an aesthetic response than a social or political one. The ever-changing shadowy lighting by Michael Hulls veils the stage dramatically and together with the Baroque sound composition by Jean-Sebastien Cote compliments costumes and performers in a subtle son-et-lumiere. Unisex flesh-colored unitards worn by all three protagonists to suggest the neutral body are frequently revealed or embellished by crinolines, military jackets, embroidered kimonos and cloaks cut in sumptuous fabric. "Eonnagata" is a visual feast but seen through darkened glasses.

Guillem, Maliphant and Lepage appear individually, together or in twos, all speaking, acting and dancing in slick staging which highlights pivotal moments in the Chevalier d'Eon's career. There are high-energy fight sequences, beguiling fan dances, titillating activity inside the French court, introspective soliloquies, and the final dark years of his/her impoverished old age. In all these scenes the performers share and exchange a variety of identities: soldier, courtesan, Kabuki dancer, horseman, sailor, elderly lady, beggar and finally, they become the surgeons who examine the Chevalier d'Eon's dead body. The edges around each identity are blurred, deliberately confusing the boundaries of where one begins and another ends through sophisticated use of costume and theatrical maneuvering; one clever costume change reveals the silhouette of Guillem behind a screen stepping into a silken robe, only to have Maliphant stepping out of it and from behind the screen. Clothes adorn the body and then are swiftly exchanged or shed like the skin of a snake.

Although it is sometimes difficult to tell the artists apart in the obscurity, each embodies a distinct movement signature. Guillem's sinewy muscular presence emphasizes her androgyny as she executes pedestrian movement decorated with the odd impossibly high but purposeless leg extension, which flicks out spitefully like a dagger. She glides seamlessly over tables, ducks and dives in sword fights or parades her feminine outfits languidly, careful to keep her stage ego in check. Maliphant's grounded but fluid lightness, although soft, still carries a masculine quality but one that possesses an unassuming modesty. He seems most comfortable in the scenes where an object such as a fan or stick is a starting point for the choreography, demonstrating controlled dexterity as he wields a stick, or meditative concentration as he dances with a gigantic fan. He is less at ease with the fancy-dress, the acting and the theatricality. Lepage's forceful presence spreads into his movement phrases, which he performs with agility and skill, although there is less of the 'feminine' about him, less enigma in his physicality. While there is no obvious hierarchy in this show, Lepage when he speaks dominates with his actor's confidence. Guillem's thick French accented English, often hard to understand, sounds embarrassingly pretentious at times, Maliphant's voice on occasion absurdly understated.

While "Eonnagata" has many seductive trappings, ultimately it is under-cooked, too shrouded in uncertainty to be substantial. There are too many indirect statements about subject matter that demands much more interrogation. As a sketch for an ongoing project it is successful, but not as a finished product.


Connections

"Destino," seen March 12 at Sadler's Wells, was co-produced by Sadler's Wells's community learning program, Connect, and Dance United. Connect uses dance to forge links between the young and the elderly in the inner city area of Islington where Sadler's Wells is situated. Dance United works with the 'marginalized,' from prisoners and young offenders in the UK to street kids in Ethiopia. "Destino" is comprised of three works. In "Full Circle," local school children, college students and an over-60 dance group are joined by two young Ethiopian men who became involved with Dance United's project set up in Ethiopia in 1995. Addisu Demissie and Junaid Jemal Sendi are now fully trained professional dancers who live and work in Ethiopia but regularly appear in European dance venues. In addition to "Full Circle," they also danced in the evening's other two works, Hofesh Shechter's "The Empire's Fall" (opposite members of Shechter's company) and "A Holding Space," choreographed by Russell Maliphant and Adam Benjamin.

Both Sadler's Wells and Dance United believe in the transformative power of dance, and this was convincingly conveyed in "Full Circle," choreographed by Dance United's artistic directors, Susannah Broughton and Tara-Jane Herbert. The cast of over 120 dancers nurtures a rich variety of performers from a range of backgrounds, ages and artistic development. Waves of generations flood the stage in this work, musically centered around two orchestral pieces played live by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, and dealing with the responsibility of achieving peace in the face of an ageless conflict. Elderly dancers are joined by teenagers and young children, all dressed in flattering blue combinations. Each group passes on a red handkerchief, symbolic of the responsibility which must be passed down through the generations. Stillness, calm, anger and radiant energy are conveyed in this skillful mobilization of many bodies. While few of the participants are 'professional' dancers, movement is kept simple and clear, making young and old look dignified and allowing enthusiasm and freshness to shine through. The piece concludes literally with the appearance of Demissie and Sendi, and symbolically as the end of their long journey, from the streets of Addis Abba to becoming dance heroes on a London stage.

Maliphant and Benjamin's duet for Demissie and Sendi is sensitively choreographed, a moving response of mature professionals to young dancers at the beginning of their careers. It's a compact piece in which the tall rangy Ethiopians explore a friendship through lifts, balances and supports that establish a bond as strong as that between brothers. Strength, exuberant energy and a rooted connection to the ground, acknowledged by much African dance, inform their physicality, which is captivating to watch, but even more intriguing is how the softer sides of their young masculine identities emerge as they protect and sustain one another.

Shechter's work is more sensationalist, virile and pulsing. Statements about violence, hatred and love made with force remind me of the early work of DV8. Ear splitting drumming and blasts of sounds, followed by glaring spotlights which descend periodically on the all-male group, cornering them in some uncomfortable interrogation, give way to ominously quiet moments in which actions and gestures become minuscule. The surges of hurling and repetitive commotion make "The Empire's Fall" one big macho adrenalin rush. War zones, shelters, terror and camaraderie are conjured up in this urgent and paranoid piece, and while there is an exciting rawness, there is also an immaturity. Demissie and Sendi, flanked by Shechter's own dancers, give it their best, but at times seem somewhat bemused.

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